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Black Nativity’ director Kasi Lemmons pays homage to Langston Hughes

Kam Williams | 12/13/2013, 12:37 p.m.
Kasi Lemmons’ newest film release, “Black Nativity,” is a contemporary adaptation of the Langston Hughes’ musical of the same name. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The songs in the movie were moving and their lyrics enhanced the storyline. Was this intentional?

Yeah, the songs are very much a part of the story, and not separate

In a movie with so many stars, you took a big chance by casting an unknown, Jacob Latimore, in such a pivotal role. How did you come to cast him as Langston?

I knew that there was a good chance that I would end up with a newcomer in that role. I love working with young artists. Jacob was the first kid that I auditioned. After he walked out, I turned to my husband and said, “I think that’s the kid. I don’t know if I have to look any further. He’s the one!” He’s a real star.

Why did you set the film in Harlem?

It is gentrifying very fast, and I feel proud to have photographed it where it is right now. I’m interested in the history of Harlem and in modern Harlem. It’s a very interesting place.

What message do you think people will take away from “Black Nativity?”

I think the movie has a very clear message. It’s about a family in crisis facing some of the very familiar struggles we face in our communities. It’s really about love, redemption, forgiveness, faith and family, the things that have gotten us through so many hard times, and that continue to get us through them. When times are hard, we need each other. That’s what the movie’s about. And I hope you’ll leave the theater inspired and ready to enjoy your family.

Are you going to release your next film sooner?

I would like to. Honestly, I do spend most of my time between films trying to get the next one made.

Do you think the fact that this has been a banner year for black films will make it easier for African-American directors to find funding?

Yes, because the films are performing, and Hollywood is all about the money.

With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you’d like to do?

If I like a film, I usually appreciate the way it was made the first time. But my cousin would very much like me to redo “The Wiz” one day.

Is there anything that you promised yourself you’d do if you became famous, that you still haven’t done yet?

I haven’t written a novel. I am overdue for that. I’ve been wanting to write one for a very long time.

What was the last book you read?

I’m reading a lot of books at once. Some of the books lying around my bed right now are a biography of Bob Marley, “The Keep” by Jennifer Egan, “The History of Love,” “The Black Count,” and “Miss Ann in Harlem.” It’s a wonderful book about the white women of the Harlem Renaissance.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Perseverance is what I tell my students. It’s important that you keep your dream alive, because you’re going to encounter a lot of obstacles, and no one is going to dream big for you. You have to have the fortitude and the resilience to stick with your own dreams. That can be hard.

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

I see Kasi. I don’t over-think my existence. I see me. I’m a very imperfect person, like most of us are. I’m also a very busy person. I have a family. I have a career. I’m a professor at NYU. I have a full life for which I feel grateful every day.

Did you encounter any racism growing up in Newton, a suburb of Boston?

Oh, sure, I encountered it when I was growing up, and it has kind of made me who I am, although I came to love Boston. It’s a complicated city. Some of the smartest people in the world are in Boston. How many institutions of higher learning are in that one area? It’s a pool of intelligence. It’s a great town. You can encounter racism anywhere. I have a lot of nostalgic feelings about Boston. It was a cool place to grow up.

How do you want to be remembered?

As someone who tried to be great. I don’t know if one ever gets to greatness, but I’ve put in a good effort, and will continue to do so.